Vietnam arrests four in Catholic land dispute, say protesters

Vietnamese Catholics are seen in February 2008 outside the former house of the Vaticans apostolic delegate in Hanoi

Vietnamese Catholics are seen in February 2008 outside the former house of the Vatican's apostolic delegate in Hanoi

HANOI (AFP) — Communist Vietnam’s police Thursday arrested four Catholics who have taken part in mass prayer vigils this month for the return of church land taken in the 1950s, local Catholics said.

More than 100 followers later staged a peaceful protest outside a police station in Hanoi’s Dong Da district after the arrests, which came as state media signalled authorities would move to end the church rallies.

“Four Catholics — two men and two women — were arrested this morning and they are now detained at Dong Da district police station,” said one 22-year-old Catholic man whose comments were backed by other local church followers.

“Police are searching for more people to arrest, but we are determined to go all the way for the return of the disputed land,” he told AFP.

Hundreds of Catholics this month staged mass prayer vigils on the land, part of the capital’s Thai Ha parish until the mid-1950s when communists took power from the French in North Vietnam and seized most church land.

Vietnam’s government has since used most of the Redemptorists’ former six-hectare (15-acre) Hanoi property to build a hospital and industrial structures, including a textile factory that has since been demolished.

Vietnamese officials say the church donated the land to the Vietnamese communist state half a century ago, a claim the Catholics have denied.

On Thursday several dozen Catholics, mainly elderly women, maintained a vigil before a makeshift altar decorated with a cross and religious icons set up on the rubble-strewn lot where the textile factory formerly stood.

The state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) reported early Thursday that police had started “legal proceedings” against people involved in the dispute after Christians broke part of a wall and entered the property on August 15.

The head of the capital’s Dong Da district police, Vu Cong Long, said investigators aimed “to bring to trial those who intentionally damaged property and provoked a disturbance of public order,” the VNA report said.

The charges carry up to three years in jail for damaging or destroying property, and two to seven years for causing public disorder.

Hanoi authorities had also “asked relevant agencies to confiscate the whole acreage in dispute in Dong Da district for building public projects,” VNA said.

Catholics first staged prayer vigils at the site in January, when thousands of faithful also flocked to a disputed property adjacent to the larger St Joseph’s Cathedral and monastery compound in downtown Hanoi.

The daily protests at Hanoi’s main cathedral only ended after official pledges to resolve the issue before the February Tet lunar New Year.

“This dispute has been going on for about 10 years, but it exploded eight months ago here,” said the young Catholic man, speaking about the Dong Da row.

Vietnam, a unified communist country since the war ended in 1975, has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines — at least six million out of a population of 86 million.

AFP: Vietnam arrests four in Catholic land dispute, say protesters

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Vietnamese Catholics complain of police violence

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Police used stun guns and beat parishioners protesting the arrest of fellow church members who have demanded the return of land they say was taken by Vietnam’s communist government in the early 1960s, a Catholic priest said Thursday.

About 300 people gathered in front of the police station to pray for the release of those arrested. Some five hours after the crowd arrived, several hundred police officers used force to break up the crowd, witnesses said.

“We came to pray peacefully,” said Nguyen Thi Phuc, a church member who had blood on her face and shirt. “Why did they have to beat us?”

State-run television did not mention the confrontation. Vietnamese officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday night.

Earlier in the day, police had arrested two church members, accusing them of knocking down a fence that surrounds land parishioners want returned to the church, according to state-owned television.

Nguyen Van Khai, a priest at the Thai Ha church in Hanoi, said four church members were arrested.

The parishioners have been holding round-the-clock prayer vigils for nearly two weeks over the land issue. On Aug. 15, the day the vigils began, church members knocked down a section of a fence surrounding the property and placed several statues of the Virgin Mary inside.

Police arrested seven demonstrators, and several people suffered minor injuries during the confrontation, said Khai, whose congregation totals several thousand.

“We will continue to pray peacefully, demanding that the government give us justice,” Khai said, vowing that the church members would continue their vigil Friday.

Although religious freedom has been growing in Vietnam recently, the state closely monitors religious organizations and only recognizes a half-dozen officially sanctioned faiths, including Catholicism.

Catholicism is Vietnam’s second-largest faith — after Buddhism — with more than 6 million adherents.

In the years after Vietnam’s communist government took power in 1954, many church properties and other private lands were taken over by the government.

Although demonstrations of any kind are rare in Vietnam, church members have been asserting themselves more boldly in recent months.

Earlier this year, Catholic leaders organized prayer vigils at a parcel of land near Hanoi’s main cathedral, demanding the return of that site, which once housed the Vatican’s embassy in Vietnam.

The Associated Press: Vietnamese Catholics complain of police violence

Vietnam punishes journalists over coverage of anti-corruption case

A Vietnamese flag flies over the official building of PMU18 in Hanoi

A Vietnamese flag flies over the official building of PMU18 in Hanoi

HANOI (AFP) — The Vietnamese government said Saturday that four journalists had been stripped of their accreditation because they wrote and edited false information on an anti-corruption case and had defended colleagues arrested for their coverage of the case.

They journalists “directly wrote articles… edited and approved, without checking sources, news and articles with seriously untrue information concerning the PMU18 case,” said a statement on the government’s official website.

Public outrage was sparked in 2005 when the media unveiled a corruption case in the transport ministry’s PMU18 infrastructure unit, where officials allegedly embezzled funds and used money to bet on football.

The scandal led to the resignation of Vietnam’s transport minister.

In May this year, journalists Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien, who were particularly active in covering the case, were arrested over accusations of “power abuse” and “false information”, sparking a media outcry.

Newspaper Thanh Nien immediately wrote that “honest journalists must be freed” while Tuoi Tre said its reporter was “paying the price for his news on… a matter which is not yet over but which unravels in a very strange manner.”

However, the papers ended their protest two days later after receiving a warning from the government, sources said.

But earlier this month, four leading journalists at the two newspapers were stripped of their press cards by the government but given no concrete reason why.

But on Saturday, the government explained the four had “instigated objections against legal protection agencies for investigating and arresting journalists Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai” in several articles.

International human rights groups and observers have condemned Hanoi for the arrests, saying they are a serious violation of press freedom.

American ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak on Wednesday raised his concerns, saying: “We think this has a negative effect on other journalists who want to report whatever story they can find.”

“We hope that as soon as possible the government will publish a full explanation of exactly what were the charges they found out and what were the results of their ultimate investigation.”

AFP: Vietnam punishes journalists over coverage of anti-corruption case

Vietnam, Cambodia brace for Mekong floods, crops safe

HANOI, Aug 19 (Reuters) – Rising Mekong floods upstream may cause landslides and deep inundation in Cambodia and southern Vietnam but the seasonal floodwater would also bring farmers good crops of rice and fish, officials said on Tuesday.

The Vietnamese government said rescue forces must be ready to move people from dangerous areas in southern Vietnam, where the Mekong river reaches the South China Sea after travelling more than 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Tibet through Laos and Cambodia.

Four people have been killed in flooding and landslides in Laos, where the Mekong river has hit its highest level in at least 100 years after several months of unusually heavy rain (For a related story, please double click on [IDnSP192460]).

Cambodia has alerted villagers of rising waters and the authorities have prepared 4,000 boats and life-jackets for the vulnerable areas in the eastern provinces of Kampong Cham and Kratie, the national disaster management committee said.

The Mekong River Commission said the river from northern Thailand to central Cambodia was higher than it was in 2000, when the worst floods in four decades struck southern Vietnam.

“Floods in the Cuu Long River Delta happen every year, so people are used to taking preventive measures for crops and life,” Le Van Banh, director of the Mekong Delta-based Rice Institute, told Reuters by telephone from Can Tho city.

“In the past floods caused problem to transportation and it was hard for children to come to school, but in recent years Vietnam has built protective dykes and residential areas above the flood-peaking level,” he said.

RICE FIELD CLEANING

About 20 percent of Vietnam’s 86.5 million people live in the Cuu Long River Delta, the Vietnamese name for the Mekong river, which produces more than half of the country’s paddy output but supplies more than 90 percent of its commercial rice.

Rice growers say they will get extra income from fishing when flooding is high and after they end the summer rice harvest. Flood waters also clean up alum, pests and rats from fields while bringing more fertile soil.

“Since the floods are to wash away alum, we expect the yield of the next winter-spring rice crop to be good, at least on par with this year,” Banh said.

The winter-spring crop, the Delta’s top yielding, produced 10 million tonnes of paddy in April with a yield of 6.2 tonnes per hectare, prompting the government to raise Vietnam’s annual rice exports by 13 percent from earlier targets [nSP283104].

FAST-RISING WATERS

Seasonal floods appeared slowly in the Delta in July, a month earlier than usual. But this week flood waters are rising faster from heavy rains upstream two weeks ago, including the downpours that caused flash floods in northern Vietnam.

“Floods are forecast to rise above the average level in many years,” said Vo Thanh, a meteorologist in An Giang, one of the Mekong Delta’s main rice growing provinces.

Waters are expected to rise to 3.5 metres (12 feet) above sea level at Tan Chau gauging station on Friday, or 0.1 metre below the Alarm Level Two, which indicates inundation and danger of river bank and dyke erosion but towns are still protected.

In 2000, the Delta experienced the worst floods in four decades as waters rose to more than 5 metres, killing nearly 500 people, more than 300 of them children.

Since then the government has launched a campaign to protect life and property, having built 82,000 new homes, relocated 110,000 families or 80 percent of those living in dangerous areas, and opened swimming class for children and teachers.

However, about 30,000 families living near rivers are still facing risk of landslides, according to provincial figures. (Additional reporting by Ek Madra in PHNOM PENH; Editing by Paul Tait)

http://www.reuters.com/article/homepageCrisis/idUSHAN232863._CH_.2400

No news of Ho Chi Minh City blogger held for past four months on spurious tax charge

(RSF/IFEX) – Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for the release of Nguyen Hoang Hai, a Ho Chi Minh City blogger better known by the pseudonym of Dieu Cay, who has been held on a tax fraud charge since 19 April 2008 and who is about to begin his fifth month in detention.

“This is an utterly baseless charge that is just a pretext to prevent him from posting more articles critical of the government,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The authorities are copying their Chinese neighbours both as regards Internet filtering and harassment of Internet users. We call for Dieu Cay’s release.”

Dieu Cay posted articles criticising China’s policy in the South China Sea, where both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments claim sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. He had been under close police surveillance since taking part in protests against Chinese policy that took place in Ho Chi Minh City at the start of the year 2008. At one point, the police threatened to let Chinese agents kill him.

After not seeing him for more than a month, police went to his home in Dalat district 3 (on the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City), searched his home, seized documents and charged him with tax fraud.

The authorities accuse him of not paying any taxes for the past ten years on the place where he lives. In fact, he rented the premises from Hanoi Eyewear Co. under an arrangement allowed by the law in which the company assumes responsibility for paying the taxes.

Dieu Cay is affiliated to a group of bloggers known as the Free Vietnamese Journalists Club, some of whose members have been threatened and arrested on several occasions. One, who does not want to be named, was fired from his job at the government’s request and fears he could be arrested on a charge of “divulging information abroad with the aim of overthrowing the government” for giving interviews to foreign news media.

Vietnam has the most repressive Internet policies in Asia after China. Nine cyber-dissidents are currently in prison because of what they posted online. In 2006, ISPs were told to install software that enables them to store their clients’ data for a year. The interior ministry is in charge of filtering political content.

MORE INFORMATION:


Updates the Dieu Cay (Nguyen Hoang Hai) case: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/92918

No news of Ho Chi Minh City blogger held for past four months on spurious tax charge – IFEX

Inflation soars in Vietnam and cripples economy

A vendor offering goods in an old quarter of Hanoi. Vietnam is suffering its first serious downturn since it moved to an open market economy nearly two decades ago. (Justin Mott for The New York Times)

A vendor offering goods in an old quarter of Hanoi. Vietnam is suffering its first serious downturn since it moved to an open market economy nearly two decades ago. (Justin Mott for The New York Times)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

HANOI: Even the ghosts are suffering from inflation in Vietnam this year.

August is the month when Buddhists provide the hungry ghosts of the dead with food and wine and cigarettes and paper offerings that represent the good things in life – cars, houses, motorbikes, stereo sets, fancy suits of clothes.

But like everything else in Vietnam, these brightly colored offerings have risen steeply in price and shopkeepers say people are buying fewer gifts to burn for the dead than ever before.

With inflation rising to 27 percent last month – the highest in Asia – and food prices rising to 74 percent above those a year ago, Vietnam is suffering its first serious downturn since it moved from a command economy to an open market nearly two decades ago.

Last month, the government raised the price of gasoline by 31 percent to an all-time high of 19,000 dong, or $1.19, a liter. Diesel and kerosene prices rose still higher. The country’s fledgling stock market, which had been booming a year ago, has fallen in volume by 95 percent and is at a virtual standstill.

Squeezed on all sides, people are cutting back on food, limiting travel, looking for second jobs, delaying major purchases and waiting for the cost of a wedding to go down before getting married.

Some village women who traveled to Hanoi to sell special homemade candies for the hungry ghost festival say they have not earned enough this year to return home.

Given this slowdown, Asia’s youngest tiger, which had been growing by about 8 percent a year for the past decade, is scaling back its plans for economic development.

Last month, the Asian Development Bank forecast that growth would slow to 6.5 percent this year. Some economists say even that figure is probably too high.

The mood in Vietnam, after years of upward mobility, is tense, said Kim Ninh, country representative of The Asia Foundation.

“I think people are pessimistic,” she said. “You sense a tougher environment, a more restricted environment, a more pessimistic environment. It’s a moment of turmoil, I think.”

People are losing confidence in the ability of the government to manage the economy, several people said. Rumors of price rises have caused panic buying of fuel and rice.

“The government seems confused how to deal with the difficulties and they have been making some mistakes in running the economy,” said a young lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity when criticizing the government.

Hundreds of strikes at the factories that have been an engine of Vietnam’s growth are one of the sharpest signs of discontent.

Some of the factory workers who are leading Vietnam’s emergence from poverty are returning to the countryside, according to the local press, unable to sustain an urban life on a factory wage.

“Some people who have been moving from rural areas to seek jobs in industrial zones are deciding that it is not worth it, and people are moving home,” said Ben Wilkinson, associate director of the Vietnam Program of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

After a steep reduction in the poverty rate from 58 percent of the population in 1993 to around 15 percent last year, some people – those who have bought their first motorbike or mobile telephone – are slipping back again below the poverty line.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the National Assembly in May that the number of households going hungry had doubled in one year.

Everywhere they turn these days, people in Vietnam see higher prices.

A shoeshine has gone from 19 cents to 25 cents; a good haircut from $1.25 to $1.87; a tiny cup of tea on the street from 3 cents to 6 cents; a one-time-use rain coat from 12 cents to 37 cents, a massage from $4.37 to $6.25. It now costs 12 cents to park your motorbike on the sidewalk, and if you get a flat tire, it costs 12 cents to get it pumped, double the prices of a few months ago.

The costs of housing and construction materials have risen by 24 percent, driving up the price of real estate and rents. High fuel prices have led some fishermen to keep their boats onshore, and the government has stepped in to subsidize them.

As the local currency, the dong, drops in value, people say they are moving their money into dollar-based bank accounts.

Nguyen Minh Phong, an expert on inflation with the Institute of Socioeconomic Development Research who dabbles in real estate, said his personal woe was that he had 13 brothers and sisters who missed the real estate bubble and now come to him for loans.

In part, economists say, Vietnam is suffering from the worldwide economic downturn and from high inflation that has spread through Southeast Asia.

But they say the problems are also self-inflicted, the result of an overheated economy as Vietnam raced forward with inadequate safeguards.

Too much capital, particularly from foreign investment, has collided with bottlenecks in infrastructure and capacity.

Trade and current-account deficits have widened.

The education system is producing too few skilled and semi-skilled workers for Vietnam to move up quickly into more complex manufacturing industries.

In the longer term, most economists agree, Vietnam will continue the transformation it began in the early 1990s with a new policy of economic restructuring called “doi moi” that was decreed in 1986.

Private enterprise was sanctioned and then encouraged, agriculture was freed from government controls, hyperinflation was tamed and Vietnam became, like China, a largely capitalist nation under the control of a Communist government.

Foreign investment boomed as new regulations and tax laws were introduced, business law was formulated and capital market reforms were put in place. The changes were consolidated with accession to the World Trade Organization in 2006.

Vietnam’s leaders, with their ambitious targets for growth, are in a hurry to surpass their neighbors and to become, as they put it, a modern and prosperous nation.

With a growing population of more than 80 million – three-fourths of whom are under the age of 35 – this is a nation looking into the future, with ever dimmer memories of its wartime past.

Throughout the years of strict Communist rule, when religion was banned, the ghosts of the ancestors languished, uncared-for and unappeased.

Religion returned to Vietnam along with free commerce and the festival of the hungry ghosts was revived. The two have flourished in tandem, and now they are feeling the pinch of inflation together.

“It’s terrible right now,” said Dinh Vu Hung, 54, who sells paper offerings in the Ancient Quarter of Hanoi. “We make these beautiful things, but the prices have gone up and fewer people are buying them. It’s not just us, though. It’s the whole country.”

Inflation soars in Vietnam and cripples economy – International Herald Tribune

Vietnam dissident Buddhist church appoints new leader

Thich Quang Do

Thich Quang Do

HANOI (AFP) — Dissident monk Thich Quang Do became the new leader of he banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) Sunday, pledging to keep up the peaceful struggle for religious and political freedom.

Do, the former deputy leader, was named supreme patriarch at a ceremony held in Houston, Texas marking 49 days since the death of his predecessor Thich Huyen Quang, the organisation said in a statement.

“We pledge to realise Patriarch (Quang’s) wishes — to promote human rights for the living, sacred rights for the dead and democracy for society,” Do said in a recorded message, the UBCV said in a statement.

The 79-year-old Do , whom Quang named as his successor in his will, pledged that the leadership would “do its utmost to re-establish the legal status of the UBCV and maintain its historic tradition of independence.”

The UBCV has refused to come under the control of the communist government that has ruled all of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, and has been effectively banned since the early 1980s.

Quang and Do spent most of the time since then in internal exile under “pagoda arrest” and isolated from each other.

The ceremony was held in the United States, not Vietnam, because police in the communist country had surrounded all key UBCV pagodas in recent days and restricted members from travelling, the group said.

“Unable to hold the ceremony in Vietnam, UBCV leaders finally decided to smuggle a copy of the testament to Houston, Texas, where a parallel memorial ceremony is being held by the Overseas UBCV,” the group said.

Despite having been kept under house arrest for much of the time, Do was able to lead Quang’s July 11 funeral service, which brought thousands of followers to a central province and went off without incident.

Authorities, under international pressure, allowed the event to go ahead despite having earlier attacked UBCV followers as “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks” in the state-controlled media.

In Paris, UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai said on Sunday that “the appointment of Most Venerable Thich Quang Do as UBCV leader marks the beginning of a new phase in relations between the government and the UBCV.”

Quang’s death and the conflict over his funeral “underscore the strong international support enjoyed by the UBCV,” he said.

Ai added that “Hanoi should cease treating the UBCV as its enemy and seize this occasion to recognise the leadership of Thich Quang Do and re-establish the legitimate status of the Unified Buddhist Church of
Vietnam.”

AFP: Vietnam dissident Buddhist church appoints new leader